Movie blood tastes so good on The Neon Demon set with Nicolas Winding Refn

In his first horror movie, Drive director Refn puts Elle Fanning through hell as a young model in LA. Ahead of the films premiere at Cannes, we go behind the scenes

In May 2015, in the basement of a haunted house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, one woman chases another with murderous intent. Under deep red light, she wields a poker. At a staircase, they struggle. The second woman falls, holding a gleaming Psycho-style kitchen knife. There is silence.

Lets do one more. A few feet away, Nicolas Winding Refn looks up from scene 118, take four of his film, The Neon Demon. The crew unfreeze, a dozen figures in headphones. The women wander back to where they had started. The poker was carried by actor Abbey Lee, the knife by body double Joanna Bennett. Lee wears a white trouser suit, Bennett a ruched white dress. She is identical in every way to the films star, Elle Fanning, who watches nearby: same dress, same long blonde hair, the same tiny coloured jewels around their eyes. For a moment, they stand beside each other.

Refn, 44, cleanish-cut in a black track top, gets up to stretch his legs. He waits until Bennett and Lee are ready for another take. Then, in lieu of action, he calls out: Violence, motherfuckers!


Refns accent is transatlantic. Although Danish, he spent his adolescence in New York with his filmmaker parents. The Neon Demon will be his 10th movie. While his early career was a touch-and-go affair, his 2011 crime thriller Drive with its brooding star turn from Ryan Gosling ensured a high profile for his stylised, divisive films. On blogs and social media, there is already excitement about his new one. It is a horror movie, something he has never done before. And Refn always promises something singular: an event, a highwire act.

Buzz has not translated to budget. Reports in Denmark put that of The Neon Demon at about $7m (5m), exactingly low by Hollywood standards. The schedule is tight. This is the end of the fourth week of a six-week shoot.

Fanning is called upstairs to shoot publicity stills in the house, an eccentric Mediterranean-revival villa called the Paramour Mansion. Seventeen and gangly, she is boundlessly sunny. The phrase super neat comes up a lot. Although the cast includes other well-known names Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks Fanning will be the face of the film. She seems unfazed. Fanning appeared in her first movie, I Am Sam, at three years old; she is now the veteran of more than 30 others including JJ Abrams Super 8 and Sofia Coppolas Somewhere. Her world, with its photoshoots and award-ceremony dresses borrowed from designers, is close enough to her characters a fashion model new to LA for this to feel familiar, too.


Many young actresses end up in horror movies, but what Refn is making feels new to her. Its oddball, she says. Designed to trick the mind. When they met, he had asked her to watch cult romp Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; shooting, she is reminded of The Wizard of Oz. As soon as something feels normal, were like, That doesnt work. Novel, too, was Refns insistence on filming in the order the story would appear onscreen. In Hollywood in fact throughout the film industry its seen as wildly impractical, a waste of money. But Refn has worked that way since his debut back in Copenhagen, 1996s Pusher. To him, it lets the movie evolve as it goes (it helps that his films have ever less dialogue).

Fanning says whole scenes have been scratched at the last minute, others invented. We dont know how the movies going to end yet. Nic said: I hate the ending and threw it in the trash. The whole experience had been a blast thus far. Movie blood tastes so good, she says. Its very cough syrupy. I want to put it on pancakes.

Above ground, crew members watch on monitors and wait. The Paramour Mansion stands behind a wrought-iron gate and a rampart of pine trees at the top of a steep hill. It was built in 1923 for oil heiress Daisy Canfield and silent movie star Antonio Moreno. Ten years later, Canfield drove off a cliff on Mulholland Drive while returning from a party. Naturally, hauntings have been reported, although not enough to hamper its new role as a high-end wedding venue.

The films producer, Lene Brglum, is sending emails. Watchful and dry, Brglum is Refns partner in the production company Space Rocket Nation. She is arranging the logistics of shooting in story order, on a story with no ending. You look a week ahead, she smiles. And you keep certain doors open.

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